Not even the arrival of the rain could dampen the spirits of the fans on the final practice day for the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

The sunshine that bathed the Dunluce links on Monday and Tuesday was replaced by a cloud and drizzle on Wednesday.

But the weather did nothing to paint a bleak outcome for a tournament the R&A said will be the best attended Open outside of St Andrews, with an estimated 237,750 people expected to walk through the entrance gates from Thursday to Sunday.

And, just a day out from the beginning of play, our Omnisport team brings you the behind-the-scenes goings on in Northern Ireland. 

HOME HOPE MCILROY ECLIPSES TIGER

The interview room in the media centre this week has been visited by Claret Jug holder Francesco Molinari, multiple major winner Brooks Koepka, former world number one Dustin Johnson, and the legendary Phil Mickelson, among others.

But the battle for the best-attended media conference was always going to be between 15-time major champion Tiger Woods and home hope Rory McIlroy.

And, after some admittedly rushed counting of empty seats - of which there were very few - during each event, this Omnisport reporter can declare McIlroy as the winner!

There's no trophy to accompany this honour, Rory, but I'm sure you're proud of the achievement...

 

MCILROY AND MCDOWELL NEED A DE-CIDER

McIlroy famously shot a course record at Portrush back in 2005, at the age of just 16.

It was a clear indication the young Northern Irishman was destined for great things, but fellow major winner and compatriot Graeme McDowell reckons his best score on the links course might be more impressive, given that he was under the influence at the time.

He explained: "I remember when Rory shot the 61 – I thought, 'wow, that's a serious score' and that he was a serious, serious player. 

"I shot 63 a couple of times, although not in the North of Ireland Championship like he did – maybe it doesn't count as much when you're having a Magners on the 10th tee with the lads! Or maybe it counts more…"

 

WHERE'S THAT BALL GONE THEN?!

It is not only out and about on the course you can see the world's best players at a major championship, with the practice range a huge draw for the patrons.

One of the funky features of the range is the LED screens that surround the bays that track the progress of a player's golf ball.

That technology is made possible by Toptracer, who a couple of Omnisport staff on the ground spent some time with ahead of the start of play.

Any thoughts of a high-tech tent were quickly misguided, with a beautifully simplistic set-up on display. 

Unsurprisingly, Dustin Johnson was high up the leaderboard in terms of longest drive, but it was Chan Kim who was leading the way...

The NFC North might just be the strongest division in the NFL.

It was the Chicago Bears who surprisingly took the division title in 2018 as the league's stingiest defense helped first-time head coach Matt Nagy make an immediate impact.

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers took steps back but, given the wealth of talent on the two teams, it would not be surprising if either or both made deep playoff runs this time around, while most of Chicago's roster remains intact.

Here is the outlook for the NFC North heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

Green Bay Packers

Surely the only way is up for a Packers team coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1992? Aaron Rodgers will have extra motivation to prove it was former coach Mike McCarthy and not the quarterback that was the problem in Titletown. The defense already had a fine young core in Jaire Alexander, Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark. Throw in first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, and free-agency acquisitions Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, and Mike Pettine's unit has top-10 potential.

That, coupled with some typical Rodgers magic, should be enough for the Pack to get back on track under new coach Matt LaFleur.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Detroit Lions

The other NFC North teams enter the 2019 season all with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, leaving the Lions as the odd ones out. Detroit finished 6-10 in Matt Patricia's debut campaign — losing seven of nine before a meaningless Week 17 clash with Green Bay — and the dip may get sharper in 2019. 

Patricia's old-school methods reportedly rubbed some the wrong way and the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder if Detroit cannot get off to a good start, with the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Packers and Vikings all on the schedule in a tricky opening six-game stretch. Then there is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for a paltry 3,777 yards across 16 starts in 2018. At 31, he is running out of time to prove he can take the next step.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions: Former Patriots defensive coordinator Patricia saw in New England how a do-it-all tight end can transform an offense and Detroit drafted Hockenson eighth overall in the hope he could have a Rob Gronkowski-like impact in the Motor City. Only one Lions receiver — Kenny Golladay (1,063 yards) — accrued more than 517 receiving yards in 2018 and Levine Toilolo (263 yards) led all tight ends so Hockenson should provide an immediate upgrade.

David Montgomery, RB, Bears: Having traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles before the draft, Chicago moved up in the third round to pick Montgomery, an elusive back seemingly more suited to Nagy's offense. Tarik Cohen will once again provide the pizzazz outside the tackles but Montgomery can do plenty of damage inside for a team that had the sixth-most rushing attempts in 2018. If Kyler Murray doesn't live up to the hype, Montgomery might walk, or run, away with the Rookie of the Year prize for a Bears team likely to lean on the rush again given Mitchell Trubisky's limitations.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Kirk Cousins

He was supposed to be the man to push the Vikings over the hump but Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2018 after reaching the NFC championship game in the campaign before. Cousins begins the second season of a three-year, $84million, fully guaranteed contract desperate to prove he can be spectacular, and not just steady, and Minnesota has to find a way to better protect a QB who was sacked 40 times in 2018. In Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. If the offensive line can hold up, he has no excuses.

KEY INJURIES

Dalvin Cook, knee and hamstring: Cousins' life will become a lot easier if Minnesota's star running back can stay healthy. Cook has missed 17 games over his first two seasons in the league but has flashed plenty of ability in his time on the field. The Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak to aid their offense this season and Cook figures to thrive in his zone-blocking scheme if he can put his injury troubles behind him.

Kerryon Johnson, knee: Rookie Johnson snapped Detroit's 70-game streak of not having a 100-yard rusher, and he might have become their first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013 had a knee injury not ended his campaign prematurely. Heading into his second season, the Lions need Johnson to pick up where he left off as he will be the focus of the ground attack in an offense that might be one of the more run-oriented in the entire NFL.

There is a stencil artwork of a young Rory McIlroy on a wall by the Portrush seafront. The photograph on which it is based shows the cherubic face of a boy no older than seven or eight, his eyes tracing the flight of a golf ball he has just struck.

Off in the distance, about a mile from that depiction, sits the town's famous links course, Royal Portrush, which plays host to the 2019 Open Championship.

On Thursday, a 30-year-old McIlroy will step onto the first tee as the favourite to win the Claret Jug. It would be the Northern Irishman's second, and a fifth major triumph in total.

Speaking on the eve of that landmark day, McIlroy addressed a crowd of media larger than that which had assembled for 15-time major winner Tiger Woods 24 hours earlier and declared: "I'm not the centre of attention."

It may have been modesty, or perhaps just a case of wishful thinking, as McIlroy appears determined to understate the role he has to play on home soil while everyone else talks up his part.

"One of my sort of mantras this week is: Look around and smell the roses," he said. 

"This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general, and to be quite a big part of it is an honour and a privilege.

"I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me, right? This is bigger than me."

He said it twice, first posed as a question, the second time a statement. It was an attempt to convince not only those listening but also himself.

McIlroy knows that even if the tournament itself does indeed eclipse his own significance, there is no single player this week who will attract a greater share of the spotlight. No, not even Tiger.

The Open has been a happy hunting ground for McIlroy, who won it in 2014 before an ankle injury suffered during an ill-advised football kickabout ruled him out of defending his title.

Since then, in three subsequent outings at the world's oldest major, he has not finished outside the top five.

Woods and Phil Mickelson are the only two active players with more major wins than McIlroy, but it has been five years since his last and there is a growing sense he may fall short of the admittedly lofty expectations that once rested on his shoulders, and in many ways still do. 

Over the next four days - because the notion of McIlroy missing the cut at this event cannot be seriously entertained - he will feel those expectations manifest in the form of widespread goodwill from the massed ranks of fans who will line the Portrush course in the hope of seeing a fairy tale play out.

The locals here are proud to see this venue hosting The Open once again, many of them having not been born when it last had the honour 68 years ago. For one of the country's most famous exports to win it would make them prouder still.

That would be a story a young McIlroy could scarcely have comprehended.

Cronulla Sharks were the victims as Cameron Smith marked his landmark 400th NRL appearance in style last week.

And the Sharks are now in desperate need of a win as they approach a fixture with New Zealand Warriors, who they have a good record against.

Josh Mansour and Penrith Panthers are also facing favourable opponents, while Smith and Melbourne Storm might be able to further improve an outstanding season.

We take a look at the week's key statistics, courtesy of Opta.

 

Thursday

Brisbane Broncos (6-9-1) v Canterbury Bulldogs (5-11)

- Each of the past six NRL games between the Broncos and the Bulldogs have been won by the home team on the day.

- Anthony Milford has had four try involvements (one try, three assists) in his past four NRL matches against the Bulldogs.

Friday

New Zealand Warriors (6-9-1) v Cronulla Sharks (7-9)

- The Sharks have won nine of their past 11 NRL games against the Warriors, including four on the bounce.

- However, Cronulla are on a four-match losing run. The last time they endured more consecutive losses was a 10-match span across the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Penrith Panthers (8-8) v St George Illawarra Dragons (6-10)

- The Panthers have won four of their past five NRL games against the Dragons at Panthers Stadium, conceding an average of just 11 points per game in that time.

- Mansour has scored a try and produced at least two tackle breaks in each of his previous three NRL matches against the Dragons.

Saturday

Sydney Roosters (10-6) v Newcastle Knights (8-8)

- The Knights are looking to defeat the Roosters twice in a single campaign for the first time in premiership history.

- Kalyn Ponga has had three try involvements (two tries, one assist) in his past two NRL matches against the Roosters.

Canberra Raiders (10-6) v Wests Tigers (7-9)

- The Raiders have won five of their past six NRL matches against Wests, with those victories coming by an average margin of 40 points per game.

- Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has gained 999 metres returning kicks in NRL 2019, the most of any player this season.

North Queensland Cowboys (7-9) v South Sydney Rabbitohs (11-5)

- The Rabbitohs have won their past three NRL games in succession against the Cowboys – twice by a margin of just one point – after having won only one of their nine prior meetings.

- Cowboys have scored the joint-most tries (11, also Parramatta Eels) in the final 10 minutes of the first half of games this season.

Sunday

Gold Coast Titans (4-12) v Melbourne Storm (14-2)

- The Storm have won six of their previous seven NRL games against the Titans, keeping them scoreless in the second halves of three of their past four meetings.

- Smith has successfully kicked 13 of his past 14 shots at goal against the Titans in the NRL.

Manly Sea Eagles (9-7) v Parramatta Eels (9-7)

- The Eels have won seven of their past eight NRL games against the Sea Eagles, but they were defeated 54-0 when these teams last met at Lottoland.

- The Sea Eagles and the Eels have scored the joint-most tries (10, also Melbourne Storm) from their own half of the field of all the sides in the NRL this year.

It does not matter if you are Tiger Woods, an aspiring amateur, a club-shop pro, or a recreational golfer - the truth is anyone who has picked up a club at some point or another has hit a duff shot.

Don't even lie about it. You've done it, I've done it. Every professional golfer has at one point or another done it. It's okay, it happens – after that initial fury bubbling up inside you subsides, you realise it's all part of the learning process.

Now, in a bygone era it may have been a friend or relative offering 'advice' as to why your ball has gone inexplicably careering to the right.

You lifted your head too soon, you over-rotated, you're swinging too quickly. Yes, dad, alright, I get it, that was a terrible shot.

But, the experience of the driving range is meant to be fun and is only being enhanced thanks to the Toptracer technology, which Omnisport checked out at Royal Portrush's practice range ahead of the 148th Open Championship.

For those unfamiliar with the company, the funky ball-tracking lines on broadcasts following the progress of a player's shot are made possible by Toptracer.

The idea was essentially to enhance the viewing experience of fans watching at home by tracking the flight of a ball and adding graphics so you can see the height, trajectory and destination of a shot.

In 2012, Toptracer expanded its reach to driving ranges in a bid to improve the experience off the practice mats.

"I think this really suits every standard as a golfer. As a beginner your eye isn't particularly well trained on what the golf ball could be doing and so very often you see when a beginner will look for a golf ball and see where it's gone," Paul Williams, General Manager of Toptracer Europe, told Omnisport. 

"By having the information right there in the [driving range] bay on a 21-inch touch screen, giving you feedback on how high it's gone and what direction, gives them insight, education and a journey into the sport. 

"They instantly become more engaged, we're seeing lots of our venues running beginner golf groups and booking straight onto improved courses because they're getting hooked straight way."

Even at just shy of 5.30pm on Tuesday, when Omnisport visited the Toptracer tent, there were still plenty of professionals out honing their skills and throughout the day the grandstand behind the practice range was packed with patrons trying to get a glimpse of their favourite golfer – a certain local hero by the name of Rory McIlroy proving a particularly popular draw.

The LED screens to the left of the range - featuring Toptracer graphics - do provide a genuinely enhanced experience in this part of the week, but the players also gain useful information such as ball speed, curve and apex.

"The tournament range set-up has been used at The Open since St Andrews four years ago. Each year more players are becoming more familiar with the technology available to them," Williams added.

"It's quite interesting. We see very similar reactions from the best players in the world to people we see at our driving ranges, where they'll hit a shot and after watching a second or two of ball flight they'll look at the screen and go 'right what did the ball do?' 

"It's just for that confirmation of data that they're looking for to improve their game and, for these guys here, making sure they're in the best condition for The Open Championship.

"We have some of the players' caddies pop into the station to the side of the driving range. They'll come in and ask for their player to be put up on the boards.  

"Each of them can have their data on their warm-up rounds, and obviously before they go out in the tournament - the tech is live until Sunday when they leave the range."

So, what about behind the scenes? If you're imagining a futuristic room packed with funky gadgets then you'd be very much mistaken. It is a beautifully simplistic set-up, with only a handful of staff in the tent with laptops and screens.

One such man helping to bring the practice sessions to life is Dustin Thomas, who helps run Toptracer's range operations.

Part of his job involves hitting a few practice shots prior to the players arriving and picking which names to include on the LED board.

"I pick and choose based on what they're hitting and we do like to listen to the fans and also the players," he said, while demonstrating the different features available.

"If someone is requested we like to choose them. But also we like to use the long hitters out there and use some pretty cool drives."

So, who have been the big hitters so far at the practice range at Portrush?

"Right now we have Dustin Johnson, Kevin Kisner and C. [Chan] Kim on the leaderboards. That was when the wind was kind of down," Thomas added.

"The top drive is 320 yards. Johnson is following with 315. We can do some cool features with those long drives and show it in fireworks mode. We take all of the long drives, put them into a group and send them all off at once."

'Fireworks mode' is a pretty apt term considering the field at The Open this week will be looking to produce sparks out on the course at Portrush.

And who knows? Perhaps the man who gets his hands on the Claret Jug on Sunday may have done so with the aid of information they gleaned from Toptracer.

Rory McIlroy is used to the intense gaze of the golfing world being locked onto his every move but that feeling will be enhanced tenfold at the 148th Open Championship.

For the first time in McIlroy's lifetime, The Open will be held in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush – where he holds the course record.

Expectations will be high from a partisan home crowd and from McIlroy himself.

But McIlroy heads home without a major championship to his name in the past five years, the last of his four coming at the 2014 US PGA Championship.

At that time it seemed laughable McIlroy would not add to his tally. Now, though, after several near misses, the question of whether the 30-year-old can be a major winner again is up for debate, which is exactly what two Omnisport writers have done ahead of The Open.

STAND STILL AND YOU GO BACKWARDS IN THIS GAME, RORY - RUSSELL GREAVES

In 2014, McIlroy had the world at his feet. His Valhalla victory made it back-to-back major triumphs, the 25-year-old adding the US PGA title to the Claret Jug he had lifted the month before.

With four majors to his name, the sky was the limit.

But in the game of golf, if you stand still you will go backwards. And that is the fate that has befallen McIlroy.

In the past three years alone, Brooks Koepka has drawn level with McIlroy's major haul, while Jordan Spieth is within one. Even Tiger Woods, who was declared finished by some, has returned to the winner's circle at one of golf's four headline events.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has flattered to deceive, collecting top-10 finishes (10 of them, in fact) without ever showing the killer instinct to finish the job.

There have been collapses, but mostly he has just faded away or else quietly put together a decent Sunday round to add window dressing to an underwhelming outing.

His form at The Open underscores this tendency to appear on the radar without actually threatening to strike.

In 2016 he placed tied fifth after a fine closing 67, but he was 16 shots adrift of the imperious Henrik Stenson. A year later, at Royal Birkdale, another final-round 67 saw him share fourth spot, seven strokes behind. And last year, when Carnoustie hosted, he was within two of Francesco Molinari's winning score.

McIlroy has often appeared to be in close proximity to major glory, but he has in truth been a world away, gazing longingly from the vantage point of a man who once knew what such lofty achievements felt like. It is a feeling he may never experience again.

RORY IS A VICTIM OF HIS OWN SUCCESS, HE WILL BE A MAJOR WINNER AGAIN - PETER HANSON

Let's put something into context here. McIlroy had four major wins to his name before the age of 30.

Only three players could boast more by the same milestone. Two of those were Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the greatest to have played this toughest of sports.

You see the problem when a player like McIlroy is marked as a prodigious talent is that anything short of the extraordinary is deemed a failure.

But not many in history can lay claim to the same achievements by this stage of his career than McIlroy can. Against what benchmark should we be monitoring him here?

The successes of Spieth and Koepka are not an indication of a player standing still, more an era in which it is nigh on impossible to stand as a lone dominant force.

McIlroy's top-10 finishes must not be viewed as a sign of failure but as one of a player with remarkable consistency.

No one will be more disappointed than McIlroy himself that things have not quite been able to click all at once over four days in major tournaments over the past five years.

But when it does all come together, and it absolutely will, McIlroy – who has been a victim of his own success – will be a major champion once again.

The AFC North has been dominated by the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers for years, but this finally could be the year of the Cleveland Browns.

It is a division that has a new look all around, as the Browns and Ravens made some big offseason signings, the Bengals added a new head coach for the first time in 17 years and the Steelers moved on from two thirds of their 'Killer B' trio.

Here's the outlook for the AFC North heading into training camp:

Team on the rise

Cleveland Browns

The Browns had nowhere to go but up in 2018 after posting a winless record the previous season, but after going 7-8-1 last time out they could really take off in 2019.

One of the biggest stories this offseason was Cleveland's acquisition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants. But the Browns didn't stop there and made a controversial decision to sign running back Kareem Hunt following his release from the Kansas City Chiefs after the emergence of a video appearing to show him in a violent altercation with a woman. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 campaign following an NFL investigation.

Among those returning for the Browns after helping turn around the team last season are Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, making the Browns not only the most intriguing team in the AFC North but also one of the most interesting ones in the entire NFL.

Team on the decline

Cincinnati Bengals

It's a new era in Cincinnati, which means the Bengals could be looking up from the bottom of the division for a year or two as they find their footing.

The team brought in first-time head coach Zac Taylor after parting ways with long-time coach Marvin Lewis, and the 36-year-old will face the tall task of helping the team rebound from their first last-place finish in the division since 2010 after the Browns held the position from 2011-17.

However, much of the team's turnaround will depend on the recovery of their offense after the Bengals lost quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) and tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) to injuries last season.

Rookies to watch

Devin Bush, LB, Steelers: The Steel Curtain has been far from impenetrable since the team lost Ryan Shazier to a spine injury, so Pittsburgh traded up to take Michigan standout Bush 10th overall and he quickly made an impression on his team-mates during OTAs. Bush, who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine, had 172 tackles, 18.5 tackles for losses, 10 sacks and an interception in 32 games in his three seasons with the Wolverines.

Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens: The Ravens surprised many taking Brown with the 25th pick of the first round. The team doesn't have the best history drafting receivers, and Lamar Jackson carried much of the offensive load last season as he ranked 30th in rushing yards, joining Cam Newton (49th) as the only quarterbacks in the top 50. Still, Brown proved to be a valuable — and speedy — weapon as Kyler Murray's top target at Oklahoma, posting 75 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Player spotlight

Earl Thomas

After spending the first nine seasons of his career in Seattle, ex-Seahawk Thomas is in for an adjustment in 2019 with the Ravens, but that doesn't mean he isn't up for the challenge.

A key member of the "Legion of Boom" secondary and Seahawks defense that was among the NFL's stingiest for almost a decade, Thomas brings a level of intensity, determination and leadership that the Ravens defense has arguably lacked since Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed's retirement.

Imagine what Thomas brings to a defense that ranked first in yards allowed in 2018. His fire was only fuelled after he broke his leg last season, and he famously didn't hide his feelings from the Seahawks...

Expect to see that ferocity throughout this season, beginning Week 1 when he finally makes his return to the field.

Key injuries

James Conner, ankle: The Steelers running back broke out last season as he took on a larger role in the absence of Le'Veon Bell during his contract holdout, but an ankle injury limited Conner to just 13 games. With Bell gone, expect Conner's duties to be expanded - if he can stay healthy - as he looks to build on the 973 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns he had in 2018.

Andy Dalton, thumb: The Bengals quarterback went down with a thumb injury late in the season, landing on injured reserve on November 26, but threw for 2,566 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions before being sidelined. Pairing his return to the field with Green and Tyler Eifert's comebacks will certainly give Cincinnati a boost.

It was another glorious day at Royal Portush as preparations for the Open Championship continued on Tuesday.

Players aplenty faced the media - including a certain Tiger Woods - and there were a host of big names out on the course.

And they weren't the only ones strolling the stunning links track, with Omnisport's reporters also on the prowl.

Here's a sample of what they happened upon during their travels inside the media tent and beyond...

 

NO PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT?

Brooks Koepka's record is a peculiar thing.

The world number one has won four of the past 10 majors and placed second at the Masters and U.S. Open either side of defending the US PGA Championship in the first three major tournaments of 2019.

But he is only a twice a winner on the regular PGA Tour. So what's the difference?

"I just practice before the majors. Regular tournaments I don't practice. If you've seen me on TV, that's when I play golf," he said to laughter from the press pack.

Top marks for honesty there, Brooks.

PINT OF GUINNESS, TIGER?

Tiger Woods was in a jovial mood during his media conference, which as ever was the best attended of them all.

When asked if he'd had chance to have a sip of Guinness, the three-time Open winner offered this assessment of one of the more popular Irish delicacies.

"This week? No, not this week. In the past...hmm," he joked.

 

LOST IN THE ROUGH

One of the joys of covering an Open Championship is heading out on the course to take in the sights and catch a bit of golf.

On practice days, with reduced crowds, it's an opportunity to follow some of the big names without having to contend with the masses that follow the action during the tournament.

But the plans of one Omnisport reporter, who set out to watch Brooks Koepka, were thwarted by some poor navigation and, in fairness, a little bit of bad luck.

If you take a wrong turn on this course and get stuck the wrong side of one of the boundary ropes that funnel spectators down certain pathways, you can end up a long way from where you want to be.

And so it proved for this lost reporter, who never did track down Koepka and was left instead to watch Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who has won four fewer majors than the American.

Fairy tales have enthralled, entertained and educated us for centuries.

Whether it be a lesson in morality, a magical escape or a triumph for good over evil, fairy tales have the exceptional ability to let us escape from reality.

It is a formula that succeeds time and time again. The problem is when it comes to sport, however, the lines become blurred and there is no one formula to follow.

Sport has no room for sentimentality, no time for history, no interest in assuaging our desires for the feel-good narrative. There is not always a lesson to be taught, nor always a battle between good and bad.

Just ask Tom Watson and Stewart Cink, who were part of a real-life fable that will live forever in golfing folklore.

Once upon a time, Watson was considered among the best players on the planet. At the peak of his powers in the 1970s and early 80s there was a magic and aura about the American great that resulted in eight major championships.

But, as with any great sports star, time eventually caught up with the great champion, which is what made the story of the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry so special.

By this point of his career, Watson was 59. His last major success was back in 1983, when he clinched a fifth Open at Royal Birkdale.

And yet, despite pre-tournament odds of 1500-1 and hip replacement surgery just nine months prior, Watson was on the brink of the most remarkable of victories, one which would have made him the oldest major winner of all time.

Even when Watson rolled back the years with an opening-round 65 that left him one off the lead, it was hard to imagine what we were witnessing was anything other than a nostalgic throwback to a bygone era.

Through 36 holes, though, there was an ever-increasing feeling of 'what if?' A gritty level-par round in tricky Ayrshire conditions left Watson tied for the lead. He couldn't...could he?

By the end of Saturday - which yielded a one-over 71, enough to take the outright lead - the most far-fetched dream was becoming a scarcely believable reality.

A couple of bogeys early on the Sunday hinted that the rigours of major golf on a 59-year-old's body had finally caught up. But even as Ross Fisher and then Mathew Goggin moved ahead, Watson refused to slip quietly into the background.

As the day progressed, there was drama that even Martin Scorsese in his full, creative flow could not have scripted.

While Lee Westwood played himself in and out of contention, Cink climbed the leaderboard and rolled in a 15-footer at the last to join Watson on two under and crank up the pressure. However, Watson replied to the situation with a gain of his own at 17, meaning he was just four strokes away from creating history.

Yet the fairy-tale nature of the weekend was replaced by the cruel reality of professional sport. A crisp eight iron sailed over the green, while his third back onto the putting surface left a tricky 10-footer for victory. The putt, as would be the case for Watson's efforts over the weekend, came up just short.

There was still the lottery of a play-off, yet the grind of the previous four days finally took their toll as Cink made a major breakthrough in a one-sided extra four holes.

So near, yet so far. For Watson, there was little solace to take from a herculean effort that had warmed the hearts of those watching, both at the venue and on television.

"It's a great disappointment. It [losing] tears at your gut, as it always has torn at my gut. It's not easy to take," he reflected after the final round.

For Cink, too, the gravitas of what had transpired on that fateful final day was tough to comprehend.

"I'm a little intimidated by this piece of hardware here," Cink admitted following his win. "There are a lot of emotions running through my mind and heart and I'm as proud as I can be to be here with this.

"It was fun watching Tom all week and I'm sure I speak for all the rest of the people too."

It's easy to feel for Cink. The 2009 Open was the crowning glory of his career but he he is somewhat the forgotten champion, such was the narrative that played out around him.

Since lifting the Claret Jug, Cink has failed to win another trophy on the PGA or European Tour.

But this is where those blurred fairy-tale lines come into play. This was never a story of good versus evil, never a tale of morality.

More just an epic event encapsulating sporting theatre, with a dream ending never getting to see the light of day. Certainly from Watson's point of view, it was the greatest fairy tale never told.

"It would have been a hell of a story, wouldn't it?" Watson said.

It sure would have been, Tom, it sure would have been.

Former prime minister Harold Wilson is the man said to have coined the famous phrase "a week is a long time in politics".

Such a notion is also true in the world of sports, where an ever-changing landscape means opportunities to stand and reflect are scarce.

But if the whole scene can alter in a week, imagine how contrasting things can be following a 68-year gap.

That is how long it has been since The Open Championship was last hosted at Royal Portrush, the picturesque venue for the 148th edition of golf's oldest major.

Indeed, it has been so long since the Claret Jug was last awarded at Portrush to Max Faulkner that Wilson's phrase had not been uttered at the time, with the former Labour politician credited with bringing it to life in 1964.

With that in mind, we look back at how golf, the wider sporting world, politics and pop culture looked back in 1951.


GOLF

The great Ben Hogan swept up the first two major tournaments of the year, the Masters and U.S. Open, while fellow legend Sam Snead was the US PGA Championship winner.

However, neither American great was in action at Portrush where Faulkner, nicknamed ‘The Peacock’ lifted the Claret Jug.

Known for his flamboyant dress sense, Faulkner would win his one and only major title on a day in which he had greatly tempted fate by signing a ball for a young fan with the message "Max Faulkner - Open Champion 1951". 

His approach out of the rough after a wayward tee shot at the 16th, which was left worryingly close to the out of bounds line, was described as "The greatest shot I've ever seen" by playing partner Frank Stranahan.

Later that year, the United States would beat Britain 9.5 – 2.5 at the Ryder Cup.


ELSEWHERE IN SPORTS

The European Cup was still four years away from its inception in football. Domestically, Tottenham secured a first English top-flight title in their history, while Newcastle United were FA Cup winners - the first of three triumphs in a five-year span.

Atletico Madrid defended their LaLiga title in Spain, while AC Milan dethroned Juventus in Italy and Kaiserslautern were champions in Germany.

The NFL held its first Pro Bowl Game in Los Angeles in January 1951, the year the Los Angeles Rams were championship winners. It would be 15 years until the beginning of the Super Bowl era.

A New York Yankees team consisting of future Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Joe Di Maggio celebrated World Series success in MLB - the second of four in a row - and in the NBA the Rochester Royals defeated the New York Knicks 4-3 in the Finals.

Dick Savitt claimed his two career tennis grand slams at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, with Jaroslav Drobny and Frank Sedgman winning in France and the United States respectively.

Ireland clinched Five Nations glory in rugby union and Hugo Koblet of Switzerland took the yellow jersey at the Tour de France.


POLITICS

In Great Britain, the pendulum of power at Westminster swung the way of the Conservative party in 1951.

Clement Attlee's Labour government was ousted from power as Winston Churchill was elected for his second term as prime minister.

The Korean War had been waging for a year by the time The Open was at Portrush, as the tensions of the Cold War continued to run high.

President Harry S. Truman was midway through his second term in the United States, having assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945.

Joseph Stalin was still General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It would be two years before Stalin's death.


POP CULTURE

The album charts in the United Kingdom would not start until a year later, but Bing Crosby and Doris Day were enjoying success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Perry ComoNat King Cole and Tony Bennett were among the artists to have number one singles in the United States, as the world would have to wait a few years to be treated to the vocal talents of Elvis Presley and a decade for The Beatles.

J.D. Salinger's literary classic 'The Catcher in the Rye' was published on July 16, just 10 days after the finish of The Open at Portrush.

Jose Ferrer and Judy Holliday were recognised with the respective best actor and actress gongs at the Academy Awards, where All About Eve was named best motion picture for which Joseph L. Mankiewicz swept up best director.

"He is probably the best left-footed player in the world, in the history of football." Savo Milosevic lauded Sinisa Mihajlovic as he rallied around his former team-mate following the Bologna head coach's cancer diagnosis.

Serbian great Mihajlovic is set to undergo treatment after revealing his battle with leukaemia on Saturday, sparking an outpour of well-wishes from players – past and present – and supporters.

Milosevic played alongside Mihajlovic at international level, the pair representing Serbia – when they were known as the former republic of Yugoslavia – at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.

And Milosevic hailed ex-Serbia boss Mihajlovic, who earned a reputation as a free-kick specialist during his playing days with Red Star Belgrade, Roma, Sampdoria, Lazio and Inter.

"It is very difficult to talk about him because I'm very close with Sinisa," Milosevic told Omnisport. "We have a special relationship aside from playing football together.

"I have no words for what happened but all I can say is I know his character, I know he will beat this. He always fought through many things… wars, lot of tragedies and difficulties and he managed to survive. I'm positive in this situation. I believe he will win this battle also."

"Sinisa is probably the best left-footed player in the world, in the history of football," Milosevic continued. "There are so many players who can take free-kicks well but not one like him.

"What he could do with the ball, it's impossible to explain. People need to watch videos to see part of the picture. It was a privilege to be on the pitch with him. He is not just a great player, but a great person."

Like countryman Mihajlovic, Milosevic has turned to coaching, albeit only recently via Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade.

Up until March, Milosevic had never worked as a head coach however the 45-year-old is now in charge of his boyhood club, with a piece of silverware already under his belt.

While Partizan finished third behind Red Star Belgrade in the SuperLiga last season, Milosevic's men did not end the campaign emptyhanded, winning the Serbian Cup against their bitter city rivals.

As eight-time SuperLiga champions Partizan prepare to open their league campaign on Sunday, Milosevic said: "For my confidence and the confidence of the team, it was very important to win that final against Red Star Belgrade.

"After that game, the players started to believe more in themselves. Also for me, it was important to start well after three, four months.

"Long term, it's not a big deal to win the Serbian Cup but for this moment, it's important for me, the players and the club. We didn't have a good season in 2018-19, so it's always important for big clubs to win trophies."

After some words of encouragement from Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson convinced Milosevic to take up coaching, the former Aston Villa and Parma striker eventually replaced Zoran Mirkovic late in 2018-19.

Reflecting on his work at Partizan so far, Milosevic said: "It was very difficult and tough time, not because I started as a coach but the situation at the club was very difficult with the team. The amount of job we had to do to finish the season well was enormous.

"But on the other hand, it was good because the experiences I've had in the last three months it would take maybe one or two years at another club. It was difficult to survive, but it was good to get through that as a first-time coach."

Milosevic, who scored 37 goals in 102 international appearances, enjoyed success as a player with two league titles and a cup for Partizan before joining Villa for a then-club record fee of £3.5million in 1995 – claiming the League Cup winners' medal in his first season.

However, he is facing a big task at Partizan, who won six successive league titles from 2007 to 2013 but have not triumphed since 2016-17, finishing 18 points behind Red Star in the championship round.

"Not just in Partizan but Serbian football, I want to try to bring the quality of football closer to Europe because we're now far behind," Milosevic continued when asked what legacy he wants to leave. "I know exactly where football is today around Europe and the world.

"It will be difficult, but I believe I can do that. The people I'm working with, we know what to do to move things forward. It won't be easy but it's possible. That's the main thing I want to try to do… not the biggest club in Europe but a serious club."

How do you top what happened on Sunday?

That question will be asked by the R&A in the next few days ahead of the 148th Open Championship after a weekend of phenomenal sporting drama.

At Lord's, hosts and pre-tournament favourites England won the men's Cricket World Cup for the first time in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Ben Stokes' heroics with the bat took England into an unlikely Super Over with New Zealand, after a scarcely believable final six balls yielded the 15 runs England required to tie the game.

The drama was not over there, not even close.

England posted New Zealand a target of 16 in their additional over. The Black Caps could only match their opponents despite Jofra Archer coughing up a wide on his first delivery and then being hit for six, meaning Eoin Morgan's men won by the way of boundary count in a finale befitting any Hollywood blockbuster.

Just down the road at Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer served up a five-set classic in the men's singles final.

The two modern-day greats went toe to toe as Wimbledon's new rule enforced from 2019 saw a final-set tie-break come into play at 12-12. It was Djokovic who defended his title to deny Federer a ninth Wimbledon crown and 21st slam overall after almost five hours of gruelling, gripping tennis.

A Super Over, a super tie-break, a super day of unimaginable sport. 

Which is why there will be so much expectation on golf's biggest stars to deliver when The Open returns to Royal Portrush for the first time in 68 years.

If the action on the course can be as mesmerising as the picturesque backdrops surrounding the Dunluce Links then it will be job done. There is a growing sense that the game's biggest stars need to deliver a show, though.

How tournament organisers would love a repeat of Tiger Woods' dramatic Masters triumph in April, which ended his 11-year wait for major glory.

A fourth Open triumph was on the cards a year ago at Carnoustie when Woods surged into contention, only to fall away in what was a familiar story in 2018 as Francesco Molinari claimed a richly deserved win.

The crowds following Woods that day were 10-people deep, desperately scrambling for the best vantage point of the global icon. That is the draw he has - how timely it would be for golf if he could generate that same buzz at Portrush.

One man who will draw the crowds regardless of performance is Rory McIlroy, who will carry the weight of an expectant home crowd on his shoulders.

It was back in 2005 as a precocious, curly haired 16-year-old that McIlroy took Portrush to bits in the North of Ireland Championship to fire a course-record 61.

Changes to the course since mean such heroics are unlikely to be repeated, but McIlroy will be aware that now is the prime time to end a barren run of five years without a major title.

Brooks Koepka is another with the skills to bring the thrills having turned himself into a major-winning machine. Were it not for Gary Woodland's fantastic performance at Pebble Beach, he would have had a third consecutive U.S. Open to his name last month.

The rest of a star-studded field can play their part too, with recent history suggesting we can get a tournament to rival the dramas that unfolded elsewhere on Sunday. It is three years since Henrik Stenson outbattled Phil Mickelson in one the most memorable final days in Open history at Troon, while a year later it was Jordan Spieth's recovery from an infamous meltdown to deny Matt Kuchar that stole the headlines at Birkdale.

A daunting gauntlet has admittedly been laid down by the events at Lord's and Wimbledon, but golf will hope the star turns can take centre stage at Portrush.

It's been 68 years since Royal Portrush last hosted The Open Championship and excitement is building ahead of the start of the 148th edition of the tournament.

Sunday was the first official practice day and several players took to the course a day later to get familiar with a venue most in the field will never have played.

And there was plenty going on around the course as the build-up kicks into gear.

Below, Omnisport's team on the ground round up some of the best goings on in Northern Ireland.

 

TIGER'S TEE TROUBLES

Nothing can make your own golf abilities feel quite so inadequate as watching the pros tee it up at The Open.

But, rest assured, even the greatest of greats can encounter a few woes out on the course, even 15-time major winners like Tiger Woods!

While preparing to hit off at the 11th, Woods needed a few attempts to get his ball to stay on the tee, much to the amusement of the watching patrons and the party involved with his playing group that included Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

"God damn it!" Tiger exclaimed. "My short little tees just don't work."


WATER GOOD IDEA BY THE OPEN

We all want to do our bit to help protect the environment, right?

Well the good folks here at The Open do as well and this year the tournament has removed all single-use plastic bottles.

In their place, players (and indeed members of the media) have been provided with special edition refillable bottles, with water stations placed all around the course.

Good on you, folks.

GOODBYE, AT LEAST FOR NOW, MY FRIEND

None of us here at Omnisport have ever triumphed in a major golf tournament, nor do we expect any of us ever will…

But it's easy to imagine that the toughest part of winning a Claret Jug is handing it back a year later.

That's exactly what defending champion Francesco Molinari had to do on Monday and the Italian had to ensure the famous trophy was kept in some safe places…

"I was very, very careful with it, especially the first few weeks," he said.

"We've had a couple of drinks out of it. Nothing out of the ordinary. I've got small kids at home so I had to keep it out of reach most of the time to avoid disaster!"

 

CLARET CHUG?

Jordan Spieth is a man who knows how to win a Claret Jug, having triumphed in a day of high drama at Royal Birkdale a couple of years back.

And to start his latest tilt for a second Open Championship, Spieth partook in an American pastime of chugging down a can…

Although we're not entirely sure what was in inside.

In Portrush, the scenic Northern Irish coastal town playing host to this year's Open Championship, there is an ice cream parlour that boasts a rendering of Francesco Molinari made entirely from sprinkles.

It must have taken some considerable work to put together but by all accounts it was worth the effort, if you like that sort of thing. Not that Molinari has been to see it.

He is a busy man and not nearly as frivolous as the edible artwork created in his likeness. His focus this week is on retaining the Claret Jug he won last year in no less painstaking a manner than one imagines would be required to pay homage to a man via the medium of confectionery. 

Building up to the 2018 Open at Carnoustie the Italian was firmly under the radar, not considered a genuine challenger, and that seemed a fair assessment when he closed Friday's round six shots adrift.

But something happened over that weekend in Scotland that transformed Molinari. Or, perhaps more accurately, transformed the perception of Molinari.

You see, the man himself appears immune to change. Before becoming Champion Golfer of the Year, he was placid, low-key, modest. And afterwards? He was still all of those things, but somehow more so.

Amid the hype and hyperbole of his maiden major, secured by a stunning 65 on the Saturday and a nerveless, bogey-free 69 on the Sunday that saw him pull clear of a chasing pack featuring far glitzier names, Molinari's restraint was almost unimpeachable.

And suddenly people were interested in this quiet, unassuming man, whose reserved nature only caused him to be thrust further into the spotlight. He was a curio, worthy of closer scrutiny; people wanted to know what made him tick, or if his introversion was something he fought, something to be overcome.

During a media conference ahead of the Ryder Cup he was labelled "insular", the reporter who made the claim drawing a stark contrast between Molinari and the majority of his European team-mates, whose more expressive characters were painted as more desirable.

The answer was unemotional but considered, and it was absolutely true - "There's no point in trying to be something that you're not".

Of course, Molinari went on to light up Le Golf National with a perfect record, forming one half of the legendary 'Moliwood' duo with Tommy Fleetwood, a double act where nobody had any trouble identifying the straight man. And he did it his way - calmly, without fuss.

The quiet man brought an entire continent to a crescendo. Again, perceptions changed, but he did not.

And now, heading into this week at Portrush as the reigning champion, there are new expectations to deal with, the kind that come with being firmly on the radar, and not at all under it.

After the Masters, where Molinari slept on a two-stroke lead heading into a final day in which he shot a 74 to finish two behind eventual winner Tiger Woods, he is also having to deal with everyone realising he is indeed human, and therefore not entirely unaffected by pressure.

With that collapse, the myth of the unflappable Molinari - a ridiculous one at any rate - could no longer survive. But that was only ever the perception, and not one Molinari was invested in.

He is much more complex than the timid and reticent golfer so ripe for parody. Not unlike a masterpiece made of ice cream sprinkles - the closer you look, the more you find there is to admire.

So it was with little fanfare that Molinari held his media conference on Monday. It was not a packed room, there was little in the way of well-worn anecdotes, or of misty-eyed reminiscences. His Portrush canvas is blank for now, but ready for a sprinkling of Molinari magic.

There was chaos at Lord's on Sunday as England won the Cricket World Cup, beating New Zealand in the final in scarcely believable fashion.

An incredible clash went all the way to a Super Over and a boundary count to decide the winner after the scores were tied, with Ben Stokes' heroic effort to get England back into the match absolutely vital.

Plenty has been said and written about Stokes, his bizarre accidental six and the Super Over, but a lot of the finer details of the match were lost amid the noise.

We take a look at five key factors in England's win that might have been missed.

 

MIXED REVIEWS FROM NEW ZEALAND OPENERS

It did not take long for this absorbing contest to spark intrigue as the New Zealand openers had contrasting fortunes with reviews. Henry Nicholls' decision to go upstairs was a good one as replays showed Chris Woakes' delivery, initially ruled lbw, was going over the top and the batsman went on to make 55. Martin Guptill's call when he was dismissed was less impressive.

Woakes beat him on the inside edge and Guptill unwisely asked to take another look, throwing away a review. There was then no option open to Ross Taylor, who would have escaped after being pinned by Mark Wood.

WILLIAMSON'S FAILURE MORE COSTLY THAN ROOT'S

Both Kane Williamson and Joe Root enjoyed outstanding World Cups and were fully deserving of their places in the official team of the tournament. But neither man truly fired at Lord's on Sunday, with Williamson gone for 30 from 53 balls and Root even more sluggish with seven off 30.

Tom Latham still performed admirably after the New Zealand captain went, reaching 47, yet they went 92 balls without a boundary at one stage and failed to truly kick on. Williamson ended the tournament with 50 fours but was badly missed in those middle overs - especially considering boundary count became the final tie-breaker.

SANTNER DUCKS FINAL BALL TO SET 242

This really was a match of fine margins, with both teams scoring the same number of runs in their regular innings and then again in the Super Over. Every tiny error could be perceived as costly and there was a bizarre moment as Mitchell Santner inexplicably limited New Zealand's scoring at 241-8.

Jofra Archer sent in a slower-ball bouncer to end the Black Caps innings and Santner, with nothing to lose, ducked out of the way. That decision eased England's chase by a tiny but decisive margin.

DE GRANDHOMME DESPERATELY UNFORTUNATE

He might not have been an obvious hero, but had New Zealand held on in the fast and furious finale, Colin de Grandhomme could have been considered the match-winner. England's target of 242 was relatively modest but they were strangled by De Grandhomme, who took 1-25, having dropped Jonny Bairstow in his first over.

His was the most economical 10-over spell in a World Cup final since 1992 when Derek Pringle claimed 3-22. Like Pringle, though, his efforts were ultimately in vain.

BLACK CAPS' SPORTSMANSHIP EVIDENT AGAIN

Three sixes off the final two overs of England's innings did the damage for New Zealand. But while much has been made of the ludicrous nature of the third, as Ben Stokes accidently nudged a throw to the boundary, Guptill deserves credit for his honesty following the maximum that kickstarted England's surge.

Stokes looked to have been denied at the fence by Trent Boult, but the left-armer stepped on the boundary before unloading for Guptill to take the catch. In a fine show of sportsmanship, for which New Zealand were lauded throughout the tournament, Guptill immediately signalled for six.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.